Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Final Terror (1984)

The drive-in horror film usually comes in one of four variants: bizarre experimentations in vague government buildings; ghosts, demons or a slasher in a haunted house or cabin in the woods; a slasher on a college campus; a slasher in the woods. The Final Terror is a woodland slasher, one with a premise so simple and so commonplace that exposition is barely required. Our gang may be campers, or they may be camp counselors killing time before the kids arrive; this is unclear, and this is unimportant. The ripped-off music cues from Friday the 13th should be enough to let any genre fan know exactly what they’re getting into here.

Rachel Ward and Daryl Hannah get their names on the marquee, but there aren’t any main protagonists to speak of here, only about ten underdeveloped campers in their early 20’s, all equally worthy of stepping into a trip-wire rigged to slice necks with a string of tin-can lids. The point is not to know these characters (or even their names), because certain signifiers alert one instantly to whatever one-dimensional stereotype each actor has been instructed by director Andrew Davis to embody (Black, British, yokel, hippie-chick). The only character with a back-story is Eggar (played by a scrawny Joe Pantoliano), our high-strung hillbilly tour guide, who doesn’t tolerate it when the male campers stay up too late reading Playboy and Conan comics, and warns our gang not to go into the “bad” part of the woods (which of course only makes them venture further). Eggar’s been in a psychiatric hospital; and he likes to wear women’s clothing. This appears to be all the evidence the campers, and the audience, need to rightfully identify Eggar as suspect number one once the killing starts.

No doubt due to a limited effects budget, almost nothing happens in the first forty minutes of The Final Terror. That’s a long time to spend watching badly-lit stereotypes smoke weed and tell ghost stories. This is the interesting thing about most drive-in flicks: they aren’t exciting. But, I suppose the culture of the drive-in requires a certain disposability; if the movies were too good, how could audiences slug brews and make fun of the dialogue? How could couples find time to fool around without long boring stretches? It’s almost more rewarding to find yourself disoriented at the drive-in, staring at a mason jar with a severed hand floating in blood, with no frame of reference. The story and characters in drive-in movies are entirely rote; it’s the strange and grisly images genre fans dig.

Yet, when a horror film is nearly two-thirds over and the audience still hasn’t seen the killer, or any interesting kills, even the most ardent genre fans are likely to become impatient. Luckily, at about the one hour mark, things get interesting. Fleeing blindly, the campers push an old raft down the river, about half of them in the raft, and half in the water. The natural lighting in The Final Terror is often frustrating; here it’s perfect. In a film with a tight schedule, you need to save each day’s “golden hour” for exactly the right moments; while this film is plain-lazy in many respects, Davis at least understands this. The desperation of the actors may in fact be real: the water must have been cold, and the ancient raft must have been cumbersome to maneuver. The tension is perfect by the time the unseen slasher hoists a dead body off a cliff and into the boat. After the body is thrown, the audience knows conclusively that Eggar is, in fact, either the “Final Terror” or the man responsible for inspiring it. This scene serves as a reminder that even sleaze can be art (one is reminded of the strange beauty found in the forest-chase scene from I Spit on Your Grave, or the burial in the final scene of Thriller: A Cruel Picture).

Unfortunately, after this strong sequence, the sun goes down, and much of the rest of the film takes place in impenetrable darkness; no atmosphere is created, you just can’t see anything. And I’m pretty sure that it isn’t just the deteriorated print transfer on my VHS (or wear on the tape itself); somebody made an executive decision that lighting simply wasn’t important. Now, the shots described earlier—and one incredibly beautiful washed-out scene later in the film—benefit from this naturalistic approach, this works for The Hills Have Eyes, certainly, but if you want to rip-off Friday the 13th, a more formalistic method is recommended.

The other scene in which natural light benefits The Final Terror (the washed-out scene I mentioned earlier) is the final scene, which was most likely a definite crowd-pleaser for the drive-in audience. Before the final showdown between the remaining campers and Eggar, the hillbilly tracker character “Zorch” climbs up away from the group and starts babbling about the beauty of the forest, and the horrors of Vietnam, in the same breath. When the campers ask what’s up, Zorch’s pal Hines says: “We found some magic mushrooms in the shack… he’s stoned out of his mind.” No doubt some of the kids in darkened drive-in lots across the Midwest could relate.


Quinta said...

Keep up the good work.

Gregory Joseph Tessier said...

Thanx! Altho you might be a robot, judging from your car insurance-link centered blog...